How did Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets become the prohibitive favorite to win the NBA Most Valuable Player Award?
He was a consensually great player by the end of last season, but he still finished a distant ninth place on the MVP vote, behind runaway Milwaukee Bucks winner Giannis Antetokounmpo and Los Angeles Lakers runner-up LeBron James.
But with two weeks into this regular season, NBA silversmiths have practically started engraving his name on the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
The place to look for the simplest signs of an MVP candidacy is on the ratings list. In the games on Monday evening, Jokic finished 11th with 26.2 points per game. That’s an improvement of 6.3 points per game compared to last season.
It is not difficult to see the source of the improvement. Jokic makes 14.6 shots from 2 point range, a little more than three tries compared to his average last season, and he does about two of them. That’s 4 more points per game. He goes to the line and converts one more game, so that’s about 1 point more.
A major improvement in his game was his 3 point percentage. After five shootings in the 30s, he has made 41.2 percent this season. He’s still taking about three per game, so the sixth point is his increase in value.
But shooting off the field more often and doing an extra 3-pointer here and there isn’t all Jokic has done to improve his game this season.
While many of his consistently excellent stats – rebounds, steals, blocks, turnovers – remain more or less unchanged, Jokic has improved his excellent passing game even further. He’s an average of 8.5 supports a game, out of 7.
Viewed differently, he supports 40.4 percent of the successful field goals of his teammates, compared to 35.2 percent. That number ranks sixth in the league.
What is so remarkable about that? Jokic is 6-foot-11. The five players above him in the assistant percentages ranking are all on guard. The closest real center is on the 27th – Bam Adebayo of the Miami Heat comes in at 27 percent.
Yes, the nuggets’ offense actually goes through their great man. After Jokic, the injured Jamal Murray, a 6-foot-3 guard who ranks 63rd at just 20.2 percent, is the next nugget on the wizard’s list.
Jokic’s assistant numbers have increased due to one of his trademarks, the long outlet pass, which has been compared to a pass in water polo, a game Jokic once played in his native Serbia.
Jokic has amassed his strong raw numbers despite his team playing very slowly. The Nuggets averaged 97 possessions per 48 minutes and ranked 28th in the league, just ahead of the Pokier Heat and Knicks. It’s much easier to lead the league in ratings and other categories when your team is closer to the 103.8 holdings of the Washington Wizards or 102.4 of the Golden State Warriors.
Jokic has said that he prefers the slower pace in part because of his lack of walking speed.
Add up all of his numbers and you get an impressive statistical picture.
The NBA ranks second in the offensive standings behind Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers (points per 100 possessions). Basketball Reference rates him first on several of his overall stats, including offensive winnings, box plus / minus, and substitute value. He’s also doing it as Ironman, having logged more minutes than any other player except Julius Randle of the Knicks.
When there is a knock on Jokic’s MVP case, it comes from those who believe team performance should be an integral part of determining the winner. The Nuggets reached the conference finals as the third seed in the West in the shortened 2019-20 season and are well on their way to earning the third seed again. At the start of the season, they were considered a little less than the two Los Angeles teams. But those teams have stalled due to injuries, and Denver instead follows the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz.
Whatever seed the nuggets end with, they’re quickly forgotten when Jokic leads them to their first appearance in the NBA finals. The team are sure to be at their peak after winning nine of their last ten games on Monday night, all without Murray in the line-up. But that won’t matter in the MVP race. The ballot papers of the news media members are due at the end of regular playing time.
Jokic has already awarded at least one group its MVP virtually. Bookmakers across the country make him a 1-5 favorite to win. If you wager $ 50 on the offer, you would only make a profit of $ 10.